all dogs go to heaven

all dogs go to heaven

They didn’t let me see the body. My father dragged the crackling blue plastic through early November snow. My stomach knotted. My dog, Fuji, lay dead in that tarp. Cancer had eroded his pancreas.

Father gripped the tarp with both hands and dragged it down the hill, across the front yard, and into the field below. Yellow stalks of bunchgrass poked through the humps of snow. The city glittered in the valley, below undulating hills spotted with groves of Douglas fir and birch trees. Frost clung to bony rosehip shrubs, the remaining red fruit rimmed in ice.

“Aideen, it’s cold.” My stepmother ushered me inside. “Don’t look, it’ll give you nightmares.”

I resented her, but understood: she was tired of being woken during the night.

In the foyer, I kicked my boots off on the worn red rug and crossed the hardwood with wet feet. A chicken baked in the oven, surrounded by potatoes, onions, and thick bulbs of garlic. I pressed my face to the window at the front of the house, overlooking the field and valley. My father swept snow away from a truck-sized quadrant. He piled wood into a pyre, starting with the sweet-smelling pine and cedar logs he split for our wood-burning stove every evening after supper. He dragged old, dead branches sprouting withered leaves from the edge of the woods and stacked them on the quartered logs. He crouched at the edge of the pile. A folded newspaper lay to his right, flickering in the wind. He tore sheets from the stapled spine, crumpled them into balls, and stuffed the center of the pyre. The wind caught the edge of the tarp. It flashed blue against the white snow. I waited for those cold fingers to pull the tarp towards me and reveal Fuji, my German Shepherd. I waited and waited.

Instead, my fathered coaxed fire into the cold air with balled newspaper and handfuls of cedar shavings.

*

My best friend, who had spent every day with me for all of my eleven years – gone. I cried for weeks: morning, noon, and night. I cried myself to sleep. I wept in the afternoon, alone in the hours we played our games – toss the stick, find the creek, eat the bumblebee. German Shepherds are notorious for eating bees and ending up sorry with a sore and swollen muzzle, but Fuji never seemed to get stung.

In the mornings, I woke from dreams in which he still slept on the red Persian rug upstairs by the front door, his nose tucked in my old sneaker. I dreaded the waking moment when dream replaced memory and everything was as it should be, for three or ten seconds, before reality returned. In dreams, he lived.

*

To placate me, my stepmother purchased a VHS copy of the new Don Bluth cartoon, All Dogs Go to Heaven. I watched it, obsessed, at least once a day. When the credits rolled, I shut off the television, and hit rewind on the tape player to spin the film back to the beginning and watch again.

All Dogs Go to Heaven told the story of Charlie, a short-haired German Shepherd (Fuji had been long-haired) who ran a gambling den in New Orleans with his partner Carface: a sneering Bulldog fond of cigars. Tired of splitting profits, Carface gets Charlie drunk on his birthday during Mardi Gras. Blindfolded, Charlie sings “You Can’t Keep a Good Dog Down” to himself, sprawled on the edge of a pier – dragged by several of Carface’s thugs and promised a very special birthday present. Killer, Carface’s stuttering assistant, shackled in a spiked leather collar, shifted a car poised at the top of the pier into neutral. He and two muscular hounds gave the car a push. Charlie didn’t see – hear or smell – it coming.

In Heaven, a lavender whippet with whipped-cream hair declared all dogs go to Heaven – because dogs are naturally good. She dabbed Charlie’s paw in a pot of silvery glitter and stamped his print next to his puppy photo in a dog-sized tome. The pages flipped. She searched Charlie’s life for good deeds and couldn’t find any. Charlie was a gambler, liar, thief, drunkard, and mighty philanderer (it’s hard to buy but even I’ve been jilted by a skirt!). But his position in Heaven was sealed, because all dogs go to Heaven. Dreams of Fuji descending from light-filled fluffy clouds on the horizon eclipsed my nights.

Despite the Band-Aid, I spread suffering through the house like a bad smell. I burned my hands gathering purple-crowned Scotch thistle and scattered their prickly bodies in the hallways. I captured up to eight bees at a time in an empty mayonnaise jar and left it on the bathroom counter, buzzing angrily. My stepmother spanked my backside and relegated me to face the corner of the kitchen. Each offense earned me twenty minutes of silence in the corner. I endured the penance, but felt little remorse: only an anguished churning in my chest.

*

God assimilated into my life via osmosis. Almost everyone in the Okanagan attended the Christian church. I always prayed directly to Him. Beaming my agony to His human touchstone, Jesus, never occurred to me. If the Father holds the key, why contact the son? God held thunder in His massive sky-borne fists that would bring my dog back from the dead. He raised a man, a dog would be as easy as snapping His fingers. I wanted His light of resurrection more than anything.

At night, I lay on my back beneath the covers and clenched my hands together over my chest. Fingers interlocked, I squeezed my palms until the pressure hurt. Fingernails dug into the back of my knuckles. I tried to draw blood, to suffer for His attention – would He demand a sacrifice?

Please, God, bring Fuji back.

I need him.

Please.

My desperate murmurs were a hotline to the One Who Always Watches, the One Who Always Listens.

*

At school, I singled out a girl with a cute blonde bob haircut, demure bow-shaped lips, and a penchant for wearing overalls: Annabel Bannister, with golden crucifix bobbing over her rainbow-striped shirts. We lunched together at the round communal tables. She shared her perfect baby carrots. I offered her a quarter of my cold cut ham, cheddar cheese, and iceberg-lettuce sandwich.

After school, we played in her backyard. I began to be invited for dinner. Soon, not wanting to be parted from me, she invited me to her Monday evening worship at the Eternal Light Christian Church. I slid onto the inside track to God’s ear.

*

Mother agreed to drive me to Annabel’s house, to have dinner with her family before we attended service at 7:00pm. I chased crickets in the carport while mother blushed peony lipstick in the round mirror to the right of our front door.

“We’re going to be late!” I said, lifting and lowering the latch on the car door.

You can never be late for church – and you can never leave. Annabel whispered warnings to me in the backseat the first time her family brought me to service.

She had once snuck out to use the bathroom while everyone prayed, silent, with eyes closed and palms open in their lap. A Youth Group teenager guarded each set of double doors that opened to the chapel. He wouldn’t let her back into worship. If you leave, you can’t come back. The same policy applies to lateness. If you’re late, you don’t get in. Sorry not sorry.

“I haven’t met your friend or her family,” said mother. “I need to look put together.”

“But you don’t even leave the car.”

Mother swung into the driver’s side and unlocked my door. I slipped into the 1989 Toyota’s blue plush seat and buckled my seatbelt. She twisted her key in the ignition. It coughed twice and purred.

“Her mother doesn’t even wear makeup.” I peered into our mailbox as we backed down the driveway and swung into the street, but no white rectangles lay shadowed in the red box.

“Not even lipstick?”

Mother applied lipstick each morning before work, after flicking mascara onto her lashes, touching up her eyebrows, and brushing her teeth. It was the final touch before facing the day. I didn’t brush my hair, unless she scolded me. She banned me from dressing myself, too. My outfits were not put together.

“No, she says ladies should be humble.”

“What does lipstick have to do with humility?”

“I don’t know.”

My grasp of the word humility and how it applied to lipstick was tenuous. Lipstick applied made mother smile a warm, wide crescent at herself in the mirror before leaving the house. The clay-textured cosmetic smeared over my lips painted me an angry baboon. I hoped to grow into my mother’s smile.

“Well, I’m sure she’s a very nice woman – but you remember not to ever hide your light under a bushel.”

“What’s a bushel?”

“A basket.”

I imagined reaching inside of myself with both hands and pulling my light out. It leaked through the cracks in my fists. With my boot, I patted down a circle of snow and poured my light down. It stained my hands. With gold-smitten fingers, I overturned a basket and placed it over the puddle. The light wavered behind the interlocking weave, licked at the spaces between, caught, and burned.

“Okay,” I said, so she knew I understood.

“Okay.” My mother tapped the base of her palm on the steering wheel, slowing down at a stop sign, checking, and gliding through the intersection. “We’re English, so our ancestors were Druids.”

“Okay,” I said, attentive.

Druids. Rituals. I pictured robed figures arranged in a snow-covered clearing, surrounded by a birch grove. Black knots dappling the white birch bark mimicked eyes. The trees watched, all seeing. The druids held a white rabbit in their bare hands. It screamed, struggled. A knife flicked from the cavernous sleeve of a robe. The knife parted the rabbit. Blood sank from the open chest into the snow, melting, melting, and revealing the closed purple almond of spring’s first sleeping crocus. Fuji’s body would feed the spring flowers, but still I would dig for it.

“But if anyone asks, you’re Protestant,” mother finished.

*

We sat in the back pew, Annabel’s mother, father, herself and me. Mr. and Mrs. Bannister were high-school sweethearts, married for twenty-two years. Mrs. Bannister was younger than my mother, her face round, bright, and wholesome as a loaf of fresh-baked bread. Mr. and Mrs. Bannister never contradicted each other. I didn’t trust it and imagined both of them with secret selves, hours of unspoken conversations they wound inside like twine.

The congregation sang in unison: fluting, rhythmic choruses that praised Him. The peaked roof of the church rose to a sharp pinnacle over the stage and I wondered if it concentrated our praise into a denser column of worship before beaming it into the sky.

My thumb strummed the gold-edged pages of the Bible. I skimmed the lyrics to the songs we sang and monkeyed what the others were doing: the sounds, syllables, and pitch. Under my breath, though, I prayed for Fuji.

We marched down the red-carpeted aisle to the pew. The priest distributed the Eucharist. Body of Christ, he said, placing a rice cracker in my opened mouth. Blood of Christ, he said, handing me a plastic thimble of red wine. Amen murmured through the chapel. We tossed our plastic cups into garbage bins placed on either side of the doors exiting the chapel. Translucent and red-tinged, in piles the cups shone like scales.

After our worship session, I did not take a sugar cookie from the wicker basket on the folding table covered with an old embroidered tablecloth. I abstained from earthen indulgence. I was Good while under His gaze. He had a penchant for control and obedience, an active shying away from the pleasurable aspects of life – like cookies. I suffered in small doses as tribute to Him. I hoped to exchange this for Fuji.

The Eucharist reminded me of the Mayan sacrifice rituals I had read about in the school library. They placed the books with content deemed too adult for younger grades on the higher shelves. But they also left a footstool unattended in the aisles. Knowledge was for taking. The book on Mayans had glossy, thick pages, blocks of text, and full-color images.

The book indicated sacrifice occurred during calendar points and was reached for during times of crisis. The Mayans offered white-tailed deer and bird heads, but human blood-letting was common too. Auto-sacrifice. The priest or politician pierced the offerer where soft and smeared the blood over an idol of the god appeased, or rubbed the blood over maize, which they ground and baked into sacred bread.

The Mayans performed total human sacrifice. The heart lifted from the opened chest was an exchange between people and the gods. Ancient Maya art depicted sacrifices with their arms crossed over their chests, associating them with submissiveness, captivity, and death. Blood, and by extension the still-beating heart, was the central element in the ethnography and iconography of sacrifice. Its use through ritual established or renewed for the Maya a sacred connection essential to the very existence of the natural order.

I understood that in order for Fuji to be resurrected, I would have to trade. Blood for blood. That night, I dreamed of the blackened soil over Fuji’s grave rippling like the lake touched by evening wind. The remnants of the fire amalgamated themselves into a shape: the shadow of a dog. The creature of ash padded across snow, exterior shifting, eyeless and determined. He loped towards my bedroom window, but I woke up before he could get to me.

The sun was at least an hour from rising. I got out of bed and dressed in my red sweater, overalls, fleece-lined snow boots, and wool winter coat. From the top-right dresser drawer, where I packed my treasures behind the neat lines of my underwear, I retrieved the faceted perfume bottle of violet glass begged from my grandmother.

The basement door closed behind me, slow, so it didn’t creak and wake father or stepmother. I imagined the path the ash dog took in my dreams and followed the imprints placed in the snow by my mind. Wind knifed down from the clear sky. It cut through my jacket, chilling, and scattered the dusting of last night’s snow shifting on the skin of the packed snow, melted in the afternoon and frozen through the night. My boots crunched as they punched through the crust.

At the site of the bonfire, I brushed off snow with my bare hands. It stuck in the creases of my palms, so cold it hurt. It had snowed and melted and froze and snowed again, melted, and froze – so I made the hand not clutching the perfume bottle into a fist and punched the crust of snow until it broke a hole two fists wide by one fist high. I palmed the softer layer of snow beneath, digging down to the soil. I couldn’t see. The early morning light divided into extreme shades: glittering white and dunes of shadow. I scraped and brought my hand to the surface; soot blackened my fingers and the bridge of my palm. Scratching at the frozen earth, I pounded my fist, and scraped off fragments of frozen ash. The nail on my right forefinger broke. Something sharp cut my fist. It bled. I filled the perfume bottle with ash and one blackened tooth.

My father found me some hours later: in bed, asleep in my pajamas, with the morning sun slanting bright through the window.

“Aideen!” He knelt by the edge of the bed and pried my dirty fists open. “What the hell happened to your hand?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I woke up like this.”

He cursed the white sheets marked with soil and blood. The perfume bottle hid at the back of my underwear drawer.

*

At school, Annabel, crucifix dangling, asked about my scabbed and dirty hand.

“I fell in the sandbox.”

Her eyes slid over my still, calm face and down to the linoleum floor of our classroom. She would never understand. Her family didn’t believe in owning pets.

“No, you didn’t,” she said.

“Yes, I did.”

I wasn’t a good liar; I’d weave an untruth with no ground to stand on and the lie would dissolve like a spiderweb in rain. She stopped inviting me to Monday evening worship.

Loyalty motivated my dishonesty. One goal dictated. I moved through grammar exercises at my desk, quiet, too absorbed in my thoughts of Fuji’s resurrection to make a new friend.

*

God failed to produce Fuji. I prayed every night. My soul sat next to the existential phone, waiting.

*

My mother braided my hair into two pigtails for our annual picture day at school. She dressed me in a pinafore with a square frilled collar, denim skirt with white tights, and black patent oxfords. I tucked my hands in my lap, my hair behind my ears, sat up straight, and smiled for the portrait – charming the photographer with the missing incisor my mother described as cute. I couldn’t wait to have all of my adult teeth.

That night, we held family dinner at my grandparents’ house on the lake. It was too cold to swim, but I crunched over the snow to the shoreline. Ice rimmed the shore, stretching in an uneven frill ten meters toward center. The gray water shifted. I stepped on the ice, pushed on it with my boot to see if it would break. It bent concave. Air trapped beneath the ice bubbled and flickered like frightened minnows.

I crouched and dug through the snow soaking the shore for small flat rocks, tossing them towards the center of the lake, trying to skip them over the surly surface of the water. My boot heel chipped ice. I kicked backwards, cracking the smooth surface. From the house, mother called me to dinner. I continued to drive my heel into the ice. She called again, sharper: my full name. I heeded it, shuffling through the snow, taking as long as possible.

Mother untucked my wet jacket from my shoulders. She hung it and the knit toque on the hooks next to the basement door. I pulled off my felt-lined boots and followed her down the hallway, past my grandparent’s bedroom on the right, to the staircase that led upstairs to the living room, kitchen, study, and bathroom. To the right of the staircase was my grandfather’s study. Paused at the bottom of the stairs, through the doorway, his arched-back oak chair tucked underneath the long, heavy desk set with a black leather rectangle. Past the chair, a wooden model of a sailing ship crowned his bookshelf, lined with rows of yellow-spined National Geographic magazines and one thick black book: his Bible.

My grandmother and mother served together. I sat at the table with grandfather. He coughed and released the top two buttons on his blue plaid shirt. He wore matching blue slacks in a lighter shade with a crease bisecting each leg. Grandfather slipped me his cut crystal glass of red wine and winked. I sipped and slid it over the tablecloth before they caught us, and winked back. Red wine was a poison and a pleasure – a sharp, sour mouthful that warmed my throat. I thought God liked wine – it spoke to his duality: no gain without suffering. I verbalized this thought to grandfather, who laughed. He was not a religious man, but minded the Bible out of habit passed down by his father and grandfather.

“You said she’s been going to church?” grandfather asked mother as she set a plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and asparagus on the table before him.

“With a friend from school,” said mother, returning to the kitchen for my plate.

“How is church?” grandfather asked, long absent from attending.

“I’m not going anymore,” I said and sipped from my water glass, eyes down.

“Why not?”

Mother returned from the kitchen with both of our plates. Grandmother followed, translucent pink eyeglasses sliding down her short nose.

“We’re not friends anymore,” I said.

“Why not?” asked mother, sitting down.

The table creaked under her wrists. I shrugged and spread my folded cloth napkin over my lap.

After dinner, mother and I washed plates, pots, and cutlery, then left them drying in the metal rack. The adults retired to the living room to relax by the gas fireplace with glasses of port. I slipped past them, avoiding the lamp light haloed on the carpet, into the study adjoining the living room. Under the maple dresser with the round knobs was a tin box. I opened it and removed grandmother’s sewing shears – long and sheathed in a wrinkled plastic case. The box slid back under the dresser.

The stairs leading down creaked in the middle, so I stepped on the edges. The basement made me nervous, with its aura of someone standing behind me, watching, about to touch the back of my neck. I checked over my shoulder: no one. The adults chatted and laughed upstairs. I moved down the hallway to grandfather’s office. From the bottom shelf of the bookcase, I took his Bible and spread it on the neat desk, so each opened cover touched each side of the leather rectangle. I pulled one of my pigtail braids over my shoulder and removed the shears from the plastic case. It took slow, persistent snips to cut through the braid. Frayed, but intact, I placed it in the Bible and closed it. The end of my braid peeked from the bottom of the book like a lion’s tail.

Does God send Jesus to collect pounds of flesh from the pages of Bibles like the tooth fairy checked under pillows for teeth?

*

At mother’s house, I sulked on the upper bunk of my bed: grounded, with chin-length hair. My arrest would last for one month, other than a daily release for school. The orders were to return straight after school and march straight to my bedroom. My only yard time would be for chores, associated with imaginary monetary value, that would – in theory – pay my mother back for the frantic balancing cut at the hair salon. They asked where my other pigtail was and I wouldn’t tell them. They yelled. If grandfather read his Bible, like he was supposed to, he would find it.

Disobedient. That was my problem. That’s why God withheld Fuji. I was incapable of the complete crossed-arms submission He demanded. I was a liar. Crouched on the top bunk, my deluxe 40-pack of crayons leaned against a curl of blanket. Plain white paper lay on a large hardcover picture book about Laika, the dog Russia shot into space and never retrieved. Did Laika orbit into Heaven? Was she with Fuji now? Or did she drift through space, barking at stars and nothingness and the futility of being a dog lost in eternity? Red crayon, yellow crayon, green crayon, and blue. A rainbow soared from the upper right corner to the center of the page. The rainbow sprouted a white, fluffy cloud. I built Fuji with colored wax – flicking the texture of his long brown fur and adding in the black blots that dappled his coat. Below, I wrote Fuji a letter in black crayon:

Hello Fuji,

I hope Heaven is as soft as cartoons make it look.

I miss you so much.

I joined church and prayed for you (not for you, I know you’re a good dog – but for the tunnel to be opened for your return to earth).

I love you.

Please come back.

I knew how to make an envelope from a basic sheet of paper. I folded three of the corners into the center, then taped them down. The letter I folded in half and tucked inside. Then I taped down the last corner. On the back, I wrote:

To Fuji, in Heaven

I added my return address in the upper rright-hand corner.

According to All Dogs Go to Heaven, if Fuji rewound his watch to be sent screaming back to earth, Heaven wouldn’t take him back. In the film, Charlie sails down a light-streaked tube to the lavender whippet’s faint lamentations, You can never come back.

Did my calling risk damning him? Would his return dissolve his soul to dandelion seeds or cattail fluff, to be carried away in the wind?

*

Spring lay its hands on the earth. At father’s house, morning snow napped between cedar trees and faded away during sunny afternoons. I wandered through the fragrant trunks, kicking up rusted pine needles and kneeling to stroke snow away from snowdrops pushing through. I ate last summer’s frozen rosehips. Kneeling, wet from the earth soaking through the knees of my jeans, I heard it: a deep steady heartbeat thudding in the forest. Immaculately still, I waited, sure I imagined it. I held my breath. Lub-dub, lub-dub. The heartbeat pumped in the forest. Yes! That was it! Fuji’s ashes sank into the earth and the soil grew him again. He came back!

I wouldn’t let him dissolve. I would break my soul and give him half. I raced to the house and shouted to my father to stop chopping wood and listen. He rested the axe on the splitting log and ran the back of his wrist over his sweaty forehead. I told him: Fuji dissolved and the forest grew him again. He wrinkled his brow. I told him about the thudding, Fuji’s loud steady heart beating beneath the trees, stirring the cedar fronds, sending the snowdrops quivering, the dry ferns shaking, and the pinecones rolling.

He laughed. It wasn’t a heartbeat. A squat, brown bird called a grouse beat his chest with his wings in the spring to call for love. I screamed. Startled, father knocked the axe propped in the splitting log and it clattered blade up between a split arm of cedar. My fists pounded my chest. He stepped over the fallen axe, feet large in steel-toed boots, and tore me from myself.

Violetta Leigh studied creative writing and environmental studies at the University of Victoria. She is published by SAND journal, Minola Review, In Shades magazine, HER Collective, So to Speak, and Active Fiction Project. She coordinates inclusive, diverse literary events with Real Vancouver Writers' Series. She thinks perfection is ugly and in the things humans make want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion.

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